Q&A with a Contact Center Leader

contact center phones

Jacob Shields is a Director of Customer Experience and Technology. He first started in the contact center industry as a frontline agent more than 14 years ago. Today, he oversees all contact center operations for a team that services multiple clients. 

Keep reading for Jacob’s insights on his job and industry:

Part I: Jacob’s career path

Part II: Leading a contact center

Part III: Going remote 

Part IV: Technology

Part V: Learning recommendations

If you’re also a contact center professional, this is one interview you’ll want to bookmark!

Part I: Jacob’s Career Path

Q: What attracted you to this field initially and why have you stuck around?

Jacob said that when he left the army in 2004, he wanted a job where he could help people resolve their tech issues. That’s when he got the opportunity to be a customer support call center agent. 

His passion for technology and the continual learning in this industry have kept him engaged. 

“Not even just every day but you know, every month and every year, there’s always something new to learn, new ways to support customers, new technology. It’s ever-evolving. So it keeps me fresh and challenged constantly.”

Q: How is the focus of your job different today?

Jacob explained that today, he focuses on the whole customer picture as opposed to just one customer at a time. He considers how to drive agent efficiency and provide the right training. 

“So a really big transition for me is to start looking more across the board and finding ways to improve service and drive our agents to be more efficient – leveraging new technology and looking at ways that we can implement new channels into our teams,” Jacob said. 

Since becoming a CX leader, he’s also had to keep a close eye on the industry in general and regularly dive into analytics.

Q: Looking ahead a few years, do you anticipate your role changing?

The role will certainly change, Jacob said. He would love to get to the point where his team is a “one stop shop” for all customer problems, even up to more advanced support. 

Jacob mentioned he wants to focus on first call resolution, where the customer can switch between communication channels, devices and different agents to get an issue fixed quickly. Getting there will certainly require adjustments from him and the rest of the team.

Part II: Leading a Contact Center

Q: What are the most important metrics for you in the contact center?

The first metric Jacob brought up was first call resolution. It’s a big no-no to leave the customer hanging, waiting for someone to follow-up. 

The second point was the average speed of answer. The customer has good reasons for reaching out and waiting only adds to the frustration. It’s critical to get to the phone quickly. 

“If you let somebody sit there and hold too long while they’re waiting to talk to an agent, that just adds to the frustration that they’ve already had to deal with,” Jacob emphasized. 

Handle time was next. Jacob highlighted an interesting point here:

“A long handle time is not necessarily indicative of a bad support interaction,” he said. “But it is indicative that maybe the agent lacks some additional training or understanding on processes, procedures, technology or even products. So we can use that at least as a gauge …”

Understanding the reason why an agent is spending longer than expected on calls is important. For example, sometimes technical details have to be taken care of on the back end, which slows down a customer interaction. Jacob advised agents to take the extra time to ensure the issue is solved and connect with the customer while they’re both waiting for a system to do its work. 

“I know for me personally, I would rather spend more time on the phone working with somebody to get my issue resolved, than to feel like I was rushed off the phone because they had a time crunch.” 

Lastly, Jacob addressed quality assurance. 

“Quality assurance is probably the other top item for us and making sure that our agents are doing what they should be … when they’re on a call working with a customer or answering an email or a ticket request, whatever it might be,” he said.

Q: What do you do when you need to improve these metrics?

Jacob explained that diving into the data is most important. Once a contact center leader has that background understanding, he or she can empower the agents. 

“Start to develop a plan to overcome those challenges that the agents are actually encountering. Whether it be through simple one-on-one coachings or even developing additional training material, because maybe agents are not being armed with the right information,” he said. 

Whatever the problem, the agents are going to be a great resource for finding a solution.

“The agents are honestly going to always be the best resource of information … I mean, I’ve gotten some really good ideas out of our contact center team in the past,” Jacob advised.

Q: Do you have trouble with how many software programs your contact center employees have to use? Is the training curve difficult as a result?

“When I started in the contact center … it was one piece of software, maybe two,” Jacob recalled.  As we’ve grown, things have gotten more complex. Customer systems have gotten more complex. And customers want us to log in or use their systems. I mean, today, our contact center agents might jump through 7 to 10 applications throughout the entire eight hour shift.” 

Jacob explained that this shift has been challenging, especially when it comes to training. 

“Training is definitely a challenge. We have different processes and procedures to follow for different applications that we’re using. We’ve really had to focus and invest a lot more time into training, follow-up training, especially if an agent isn’t dealing very commonly in an application, they’re going to forget – it’s like muscle memory,” he detailed. 

It was a new experience for him to ask “are we providing too much information?” when training agents. Today, Jacob is in the process of segmenting out his team, so that different groups specialize on specific systems and no one individual feels overwhelmed. 

To illustrate just how much new training his team does, Jacob added that for one customer, his team pushes out new training each holiday season. For other initiatives they need a training refresh quarterly, bi-annually and annually.

Part III: Going Remote

Q: How did you approach the transition to work from home? What are some challenges of this format?

Jacob recalled that in response to the pandemic, he first ensured all his agents got laptops and began coordinating with the IT department for connectivity tests. Once everyone was home, he realized laptops were not enough. He began deploying more resources such as monitors and monitor stands. 

Lastly, he made sure to follow up with one-on-one training and checks-ins. So far, his team has been adjusting well, although not everyone loves being remote. 

“There are some that are perfectly content working from home and there are those that like the personal interaction, the face-to-face,” Jacob said. 

As for challenges, Jacob maintained that communication is trickier when the team is dispersed. Especially for a contact center, it’s hard to tell when a colleague might be busy on the phone.

Q: Do you foresee your contact center changing in permanent ways as a result of the pandemic?

“Now, I think we’re definitely in the new age of the way contact centers need to function,” answered Jacob. “And the beauty of it is that as you need to scale, there’s a lot more capability with work from home agents.” 

Jacob clarified that he still sees a role for a physical office, but as a place for additional training or a home base for small, specialized teams. Now that working remotely is becoming the new normal, companies will benefit from access to agents from all over the US and even international locations.

Q: Is COVID the biggest crisis you’ve had to handle while leading a contact center?

Jacob explained that he’s seen difficult situations in the army and tough moments in the contact center world where there were high call volumes. Yet this crisis was unprecedented. 

“Nobody would have imagined … we’re essentially kicking everybody out of the contact center, going virtual and we’re migrating an entire team that has been traditionally in the building,” he said. “And that’s the way that 90% of them know how to work and function.” 

Jacob added that if he could go back in time and do things differently, he would have embraced the remote work before it was a necessity: “I think at this point, going back, I would have pushed for more team members to be virtual sooner and make that part of the standard regimen”.

Q: In light of this latest challenge, what do you think are the most important qualities for a contact center leader?

Jacob homed in on compassion and empathy. To him, a good contact center leader connects with people one-on-one and withholds judgement until they understand the whole story. 

“It could be as simple as somebody jumped off early. Well, don’t jump to a conclusion that they just went ahead and left early, there could be a bigger reason,” Jacob illustrated. 

He also added that a good leader listens to the team, communicating openly and getting new ideas from agents. On the topic of communication, Jacob said: “I would refer back to Dale Carnegie’s rule number one as well, which is ‘don’t criticize, condemn or complain.’ So, you criticize an agent, well … you’re going to put them on the defensive.”

Part IV: Technology

Q: What kind of technology do you use and why? How do you evaluate new tools?

Jacob answered that first, he documents his current system’s capabilities versus the new goal. He doesn’t want to lose the features and functionalities he’s already got. Then, if a tech tool meets the minimum requirements for the new use case, he continues the line of inquiry.

“What’s our return on investment versus what we have today? Am I going to have to spend $100,000 in engineering time, or you know, bring a bunch of engineers and subject matter experts to go ahead and implement a new solution?” 

Jacob clarified that involving engineers is not necessarily bad; this team might provide useful insights. However, the implementation process can be tricky, as he must convey the importance of the new tool to the IT department. Time spent in implementation can really add up.

“Are we going to end up having to spend weeks, months, years getting something implemented because I’m fighting [other] priorities and teams?”

When the tool is more of a nice-to-have as opposed to answering an urgent need, getting the project prioritized is even harder: “So it seems like sometimes you spend more time and effort having conversations than it really takes to implement something,” Jacob said.

Q: Are you planning to invest in new technologies in the next 12 months? If so, what is at the top of your list?

“I mean, we have chat today, but our chat is very human-interaction only. So we’re going to be looking to investigate further into some automations and chat bots,” said Jacob. “We’re also looking into integrating payment processing through our IVR.” 

Additionally, Jacob mentioned that he’s interested in automation systems that increase agent efficiency: “We want to make the agents more efficient and also reduce the amount of applications, so we’re going to look at ways to add connectors and push data between the systems.”

Q: Do you have any challenges or worries around staying compliant?

When Jacob’s team switched to working remotely, they stopped accepting payments over the phone for compliance reasons. Instead, the team educated customers on how to complete transactions themselves. Jacob explained that customers did not seem frustrated, as everyone understood the current crisis is creating some issues. 

“If we were still having to take [customer information] over the phone and run payment processing, I’d be 100% scared for [compliance],” he added. 

Jacob clarified that he’s very interested in using automation for payment processing. He would like to minimize risk by removing agents from this type of customer interaction.

“You know, artificial intelligence and automation can go ahead and handle [payment processing] and if [customers] still want to talk to somebody they can go ahead and press the option to speak to an agent.”

Part V: Parting Advice

Q: What’s your advice for aspiring contact center leaders?

Jacob advised starting at the ground level so you understand agents: “If you don’t really understand what an agent is dealing with through living it, you don’t have a lot of ways to provide them with good guidance on how to overcome some of their challenges or find new technology.”

He also recommended attending events such as the Contact Center Expo or Contact Center Connections. Jacob explained that if you have a challenge, odds are you can meet someone who can help at these gatherings.

Q: What are some learning resources you recommend?

The first name Jacob mentioned was Dale Carnegie. He said that “it takes you to some uncomfortable places but it teaches you communication in a compassionate and empathetic way.”

He also recommended Benchmark Portal and ICMI as good organizations for additional training. 

Lastly, Jacob talked about Jeff Toister’s books on customer service (you can also read our interview with Jeff here) and Art Coombs’ books on leadership. 

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